Moody Sings the Blues for an Everlasting Pursuit of Self-Identity in Jackie Kay’s Trumpet

“There is no gender identity behind the expressions of gender; that identity is performatively constituted by the very expressions that are said to be its results.”

Judith Butler

Gender Trouble

The problem with man is that he needs to rationalize everything. Without questioning, he distances himself from an object or an idea that he can’t exactly define and which is in an unconfirmed and blurred realm of existence. He breeds an unremitting fear of not knowing where that object or idea suits; he simply cannot bear his inability of categorizing it. That’s the case when a Western ear tries listening to Japanese music, which falls out of our conventions of notation. It definitely disturbs him with its out of range notes and complicacy that he thinks the whole arrangement is out of tune and atonal. Generally speaking, he may not be able to help himself when he bumps into a person who “appears” to have a different choice of gender or sexual orientation than his own; he stops a moment before he can even try to comprehend. Under the framework of a heterosexual world and binary oppositions of gender, this theoretically “undefined” status leads him to repudiation. Sex and gender codes are assets determined thousands of years ago. He simply knows that in the course of history there has always been the mainstream and the newly emerging opponent avant-garde ideologies. So how come he is so certain that this binary make-up of male and female genders will last for another thousand years?

Trumpet, by Jackie Kay, is a novel inspired from the American jazz musician Billy Tipton who was biologically female, yet cross-dressed as a man for the rest of his life after having seen that he was not permitted to perform his music as a woman. His fictive counterpart here is Joss Moody, a black trumpet player with a devoted wife proud to be “Mrs. Moody” and an infuriated son Colman who, upon the discovery of the truth about his father’s sex, gets involved in a book written by a hack writer. “His whole life was a fucking lie. What does it matter if Colman changed it a little bit?” (Kay 123) He doesn’t know yet that one can also imagine a life for himself, that maybe we all imagine ourselves to become the person that we are.

It’s crucial to understand the reasons behind this very big change of identity in the backdrop of mid twentieth century England where, as far as we can imagine, being simultaneously a black person, a woman, and a promising musician calls for a substantial transcendence of reality.

We need to remember first what it feels like to be black from Colman’s words: “[E]very black guy my age that I saw on TV had just been arrested for something… It’s like we only had the one face to them. The same face… I’ve been picked up by the police countless times… just for being black and being in the wrong place at the wrong time” (162). We need add to this the response of Millie’s mother regarding her marriage with Joss: “It [isn’t] prejudice, it [is] common sense . . . I don’t want you marrying a Darky” (27). Black is definitely seen as the other, the inferior; whose only problem is to create problems. He’s the burden; even he himself feels the weight on his shoulders.

Joss Moody finds “the key to success”, as Colman says, with his trumpet. This success takes its roots from the struggle of the black people brought to America’s port for slavery in those times, New Orleans. They were not only physically there fulfilling what’s asked of them, working night and day; their work songs, murmurings of blues, their polyrhythmic and percussive moods of dance outlived their struggles. They sang the blues in order to get rid of their sorrow, to find a refuge in the melodies that could help them move on and have a future. And all these came to be jazz music in time; a creation, a hope for salvation brought about by the African people. Jazz was a loud yet non-violent revolution, an outcome of opposition and disillusionment at the hands of the white world. Joss also knew that as a woman in those times, he could not move the crowds the way a male trumpet player would do and be internationally known. Therefore his only way of existence was through being a trumpet virtuoso, as a man with a life-long commitment and dedication. He needed to reconstruct a new reality. As Judith Butler says: “[O]ur very sense of personhood is linked to the desire for recognition, and that desire places us outside ourselves, in a realm of social norms that we do not fully choose, but that provides the horizon and the resource for any sense of choice that we have” (Butler, Undoing Gender 31).

Performing as a male trumpet player for a time, Joss starts dating Millie. All that time curious about what’s going wrong with their relationship, Millie finds a clue: “When the sax starts Joss closes his eyes and keeps them closed for the longest time. I find this a bit embarrassing. I feel as if I’ve lost him, that he belongs to the music and not to me” (Kay 17). Joss is still not legitimized in order to be a man for Millie. At that phase of their relationship, Joss is a man only in the realm of jazz. He is the one that knows what builds up a wall between the two. When the tune changes and gets sadder Millie starts tapping to the music and realizes that she can feel it inside her. All the while Joss is staring at her, which is a look of confirmation. It’s Millie’s canonization into Joss’ world of jazz. It’s the only thing needed so that he can share his physicality with Millie, be her man. I believe that it’s not a coincidence that this was the night of the revelation.

Never a time does Millie question Joss’ transgression of gender. Moody is taken for what he is, and cared for. Millie doesn’t imply anything about his transsexualism. She takes him for what he is, with his bandages and filling cotton pieces. “It was our secret. That’s all it was. Lots of people have secrets, don’t they? The world runs on secrets. What kind of a place would the world be without them? Our secrets were harmless. It did not hurt anybody” (10).

It doesn’t matter for Millie what makes Joss Moody a man. What he corresponds to is the fact one way or another he has come to “realize” the manliness in himself, ignoring his actual assigned sex. He doesn’t even need to ignore; he has totally wiped out his awareness of having been once upon a time a girl.

Once a wife now a widow after Joss’ death, Millie is under the assault of the media which points a finger to this greatest deception of a world-wide known jazz musician who recently turned out to be a woman, and to his wife sticking her with the etiquette of “lesbian”. What Joss wanted was to find himself a place and escape his “black” conscious; he again falls into the trap of gender regulations.

Is it really a deception? If that is, why would Joss care to deceive people when all that he cared about was himself? Is it simply possible for a woman to become a man? Judith Butler more or less gives an answer to that: “Some people have asked me what is the use of increasing possibilities for gender. I tend to answer: Possibility is not a luxury; it is as crucial as bread. I think we should not underestimate what the thought of the possible does for those for whom the very issue of survival is the most urgent” (Butler, Undoing Gender 29).

Beauvoir reflects that “gender is always acquired… that one is born with a sex… [b]ut sex does not cause gender, and gender cannot be understood to reflect or express sex” (Butler, Gender Trouble 111). Joss is merely a human who has preferred to be a man, to reassign a new gender for himself. Walker states; “what one person is doing to another at a particular time in a particular bed would seem to be an inexact and disorderly way of discerning who they are” (par 26). In this context, neither Joss nor Millie is a lesbian. Even without theorizing it, it’s crystal clear to the eye that Millie loves Joss as her husband:

I managed to love my husband from the moment I clapped my eyes on him till the moment he died. I managed to desire him all of our married life. I managed to respect and love his music. I managed to always like the way he ate his food. I managed to be faithful, to never be interested in another man. I managed to be loyal, to keep our private life private where it belonged. To not tell a single soul including my own son about our private life. I managed all that. I know I am capable of loving to the full capacity, of not being frightened of loving too much, of giving myself up and over. I know that I loved being the wife of Joss Moody. (Kay 206)

“The institution of a compulsory and naturalized heterosexuality requires and regulates gender as a binary relation in which the masculine term is differentiated from a feminine term, and this differentiation is accomplished through the practices of heterosexual desire” (Butler, Gender Trouble 22-23). McClintock states, embellishing on Marjorie Garber’s ideas, how the cross-dresser should be assessed:

The transvestite inhabits the threshold of category distinction, challenging ‘easy notions of binarity and throwing into question the categories of male and female”… The transvestite is not equivalent to one sex or another but is rather the figure that inhabits that borderland where oppositions are perpetually disarranged, untidied and subverted. (McClintock 656)

The aforementioned establishment of the binary genders of male and female within the norms of the culture does not let the mainstream progression of ideologies stray from its route. Along with Joss’ death and the discovery the rumours and the assumptions explode excluding the trumpet player from the understandable, easy and comfortable way of categorization of gender, without a second thought he is reckoned to be a subversive lesbian.

The greatest usurper in this rooted heterosexual pattern is, metaphorically speaking, Sophie Stones the capitalist; the usurper who seeks every possibility to attack, to utilize the weaker, and contrives cunning ways of increasing her profit. Walker states: “For Stones, the journalist, homosexuality is a marketable commodity in the publishing world: She knows that sex sells: ‘Lesbians who adopted a son; one playing the mummy, one playing daddy. The big butch frauds’ (Kay 170)” (Walker par 27).

Joss Moody’s life is all about wrapping and unwrapping. He’s wandering in circles from one different way of existing to the other. The registrar is face to face with a case like Joss’ for the first time in his life, dumbfounded having witnessed a very realistic albeit extraordinary transformation of identity in a couple of minutes. “Doctor Krishnamurty felt as if she was removing skin, each wrapping of bandage that she peeled off felt unmistakably like a layer of skin” (43). Joss only wraps himself to be a man so that he can play his trumpet and reach the depths of his soul. But, being a man is something deeper for Joss, it’s not superficial, it’s not merely a facade. It’s penetrated into his skin and hard to take away. There can only be one way that he submits to strip himself of his skin, his body, where he may easily renounce his sex and identity before thousands of people:

The music is his blood. His cells… All his self collapses – his idiosyncrasies, his personality, his ego, his sexuality, even, finally, his memory. All of it falls away like layers of skin unwrapping. He unwraps himself with his trumpet. Down at the bottom, face to face that he is nobody. The more he can be nobody the more he can play with that horn. Playing the horn strips him bare till he ends up with no body, no past, nothing. (Kay 135)

In the eyes of the society, Joss Moody was never actually able to get rid of his physical “female” features. He could not escape passing onto the other side without what he was at the beginning. Even in his death, he was doomed to be a female body. Death unveiled his constructed identity. “Death hath a thousand several doors for men to take their exit” (Kay 133), yet for Joss Moody there was only one way out, ceasing to exist as a label, as an outcast, as the other. He’s doomed to be judged always bouncing between these two subsecutive tricky modes of being: “You are what you wear. You are what you were” (Walker par 1).

Joss in every occasion seems to opt out the past, whatever it pertains to; his race, origin, birthplace, sex etc. He tells his son to “make up [his] own bloodline” (58). He wants him to imagine himself. He somehow wants to be one of the related; one needn’t biology to prove anything. For Joss, past doesn’t matter because he is “[t]he dispossessed. He can’t stop himself changing” (135). And there is always“[s]omebody who resents progress or irritated by it or decides all change is false” (272). He is like his mother; she would abhor things that repeat themselves. Joss thinks that change renders him free and careless of the borders of any kind. He does not hesitate to go back to the images of childhood; he remembers the railway, the ice-cream. Two days before his death he wants ambrosia creamed rice from Millie, which was his favourite dessert when he was a girl. The circularity, elasticity and multiplicity of his identity is exhilarating and beyond comprehension. One expects in the “Last Word” that he would make up for the change of gender and his disguise to Colman, but he doesn’t. He tells the story of the black immigrant who keeps changing names just like his son reconstructs his gender. He only implies the roots of his circular becoming. The rest is silence.

Joss Moody is a multi-faceted and unintelligible identity. Either fiction or life-size, he’s the very embodiment of change, that which the whole world dreads to see. He has a point that can strike down all economies of power, gender and race. Not even once a direct speaker, yet one of the most powerful antagonists. He arouses a passive sensation, the irony rolled up within. He’s no longer a woman or man. He’s already got there before the entire world is shamed to try. He may even come up and sing:

“Excuse me sir,
guess you got me wrong.
I’m of no colour,
but my skin’s a rainbow.”



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